Buenos Aires

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Flores, 2016

July 7, 2016

Five days in and finally we see the sun in a place other than the center of the Argentine flag. An unbroken greyness hangs over Buenos Aires, with clouds from horizon to horizon and a rain that is never intense but persistently either on its way down or freshly fallen.

In a summer where we are staying in no one place for very long, our most permanent residence will be a studio close to the center of the Argentine capital in the middle of winter. There is no jet-lag to remind us that we have travelled a very long way. Rather we rely upon other less embodied experiences to emphasize our lack of familiarity with our surroundings. There’s the frustration of grocery shopping without full knowledge of local prices and culinary offerings (no tofu, expensive cheese, and cheap wine), the novelty of simple differences like elevator panels that display floors 0,-1, and -2 and the joy of small accomplishments like mastering the lock to our front door.

Buenos Aires is at once simple and difficult to navigate. It is a grid, thus there is little mystery as to which way to go. However, only major intersections have street signs, so finding destinations requires either counting streets or at the very least the self-assurance to guess wrong and try the next one.

Within a couple of days, we’d found our way to Koreatown, where we found the comfort that can only in found in familiar language, recognizable cuisine, and Choco Pies. Linda is keen to expand her knowledge of Spanish while we are here, but as we adjust, it is calming to be able to read a menu and know exactly what will be served. In our restaurant of choice, we learned that the Korean greeting bow and the Argentine greeting kiss have been combined to accommodate both cultures. Bow first, then embrace, then kiss, nearly all in one motion. A Korean grocer provided the tofu we could not find downtown.

Now for three weeks we settle into a routine. Linda spends mornings at school learning her fourth language, while I wander aimlessly for the most part, at ease to be back in a city after a year surrounded by manure-filled fields, auto-dominated byways and earnest undergraduates. In the afternoon, we find a café and a meal. At night, one of us reads about the social construction of space and place, while the other learns new ways to communicate with the locals.

July 13, 2016

Congreso lacks warmth. We are left cold by the combination of the damp chill of wintertime with our choice of residence: a colorless apartment building in the central business district that has easy access to transportation, but not the pleasant pace of perhaps a single story house in a more relaxed neighborhood. When I idealized my stay in Buenos Aires, it was idle mornings in sidewalk cafés slowly meandering through a medialuna and a few small, but delicious cups of coffee. This simply hasn’t happened.

Much of the central part of Buenos Aires is made up of gloomy concrete public buildings in disrepair tagged with at least a generation of untouched, but also unspectacular, graffiti. There are recent pleas of “Fuera Uber” and “Fuera Obama” or the nearly decade old, “Fuera Bush.” The country’s main legislative building is marked with a faded, but well-placed and recognizable anarchy sign on its exterior. Indeed, the only two government buildings we have seen without visible marks of dissent are the fenced off and very well-guarded president’s house and the even more fenced off and well-guarded Department of Defense that looms next to it.

While the waterfront has its share of glass and steel, the balance of the city lacks the sense of erasure that accompanies the millennial instinct to sell every third building for condominiums. Alongside the moody defaced slabs of bureaucracy, central Buenos Aires maintains other far more interesting physical vestiges of its past, cafés with high arched windows and ornate stained glass, elevators with manual doors, ironwork balconies, and a bookstore on seemingly every block. Chain stores and the internet never had the opportunity to destroy the local literary culture. Books are everywhere, as are vinyl records.

While graffiti may mark government buildings for their inhabitant’s contradictions, it is also very much part of the furniture, expected and ignored dissent. The 30 year old weekly political protest march of the Asociación Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, however, continues to draw far more attention within and beyond the borders of Argentina. The madres’ short circular walk around the center of the plaza in front of the president’s house, initiated during the late 70s US-funded Dirty War, persists as a reminder of the state’s role in the murder of its citizens. The mother and grandmothers of the disappeared, now joined by the children of the disappeared, continue to connect the atrocities of the past to the imbalances of the present. History is lived instead of memorialized in objects.

Physical manifestations matter, though. Relatives of the disappeared were the driving force behind preserving the former Naval School of Mechanics as a memorial to the disappeared and a place to inform others about the past. The buildings of the campus have not been so much preserved as left alone to age without intervention. The one that served as a torture chamber and transfer station for political prisoners contains a narrative of the events, but mostly it stands just as it was, cold, dark and damp. The paint has not been touched up, the cracks in the concrete remain unfixed. Here, people engaged in forced labor, faced abuse and interrogation, and when they no longer served the government’s purpose, they were injected with sedatives, loaded onto planes, flown over the Río de la Plata, and ejected, while still alive.

Other buildings on the campus maintain their exteriors, while their insides have changed. Several human rights organizations are headquartered on the site, as is an art center with daily programs. The only new building is a museum dedicated to the Islas Malvinas, the islands off Argentina’s coast that are the site of a territorial dispute with the British. Upon entering, I was shunted into a circular theater and treated to a saccharine HD video of explosions, colonial-era drawings, and school children. The purpose of the museum is to reaffirm Argentina’s claim to the islands and as an injured party of European expansionist power. Far be it for me to guess the motives of the Argentinian state, but it is as if they could not leave the site as just a condemnation of their worst impulses without including a unsubtle appeal to national pride and victimization.

July 23, 2016

When Linda and I travel, the main point of negotiation falls between getting a sense and making a connection. The length of time required for either one of these relatively abstract ideas varies from place to place, country to country, but generally, getting a sense involves making acquaintances, seeking out a few activities and determining the best route to the next destination, while making a connection incorporates time to learn more than the basics, establishing the semblance of a routine and engagement with the locals.

Is it better to take the risk that whatever newness is to be found in a different place will match the possibilities of deeper access to a recently foreign experience? There’s no ideal answer here, as there are clear benefits to both approaches. While our past travels have leaned towards getting a sense, we have stayed in Buenos Aires long enough to make a connection. By our third week in China, Mexico, Korea and Canada we had moved multiple times across state or province lines, even, in some cases, across the entire country. In Argentina we have moved circularly, not linearly, always coming back to our studio in the center of Buenos Aires.

A longer stay means experiencing local phenomena in a more informed context. For instance, as we left a café at 8pm on a Thursday, we encountered a distinct clinking sound reverberating throughout the neighborhood of Palermo. On the next block we heard it again. It was all around us bouncing off every building, generated from many stories above. Finally, we found a single man standing on a street corner knocking a metal utensil on an empty pot. Car horns joined in. People stood on their balconies rhythmically clanking away on whatever metal surface was closest at hand. Two disembodied hands reached out from a window on the 1st floor (here this is the floor above the one at street level) with a pot and spoon banging in unison with their owner’s neighbors. We guessed at what it was, I assumed it was related to the Boca Juniors football match to be played in 45 minutes.

We passed a bicycle shop and Linda asked the owner about the performance, which included him ringing a bike bell. His one word response: “Cacerolazo.” Literally, casserole. To protest the actions of their government, in this case a rise in utility rates, Argentinians and other South Americans, will organize a coordinated nationwide noisemaking event, in which at a designated time, people, wherever they are, bang on a pot (or a balcony railing, car horn, or bike bell). While there are usually attendant street gathering at symbolic sites, as was the case for the cacerolazo we experienced, the tradition allows for anyone to participate, even from their homes. Thus a quiet neighborhood becomes a cacophonous site of protest. It’s an opportunity to profoundly disturb the peace without leaving your apartment.

Another sound-related local tradition we have encountered is that of subway performance culture. Vendors will move through the cars placing their chosen sale item on the lap of each seated commuter. This is not uncommon, but what makes Buenos Aires distinct in my experience, is the volume of sales, more than three or four per vendor per car. Subway commerce is not limited to tangible exchanges, however. Musical performances, which in New York are greeted with sideways glares and huffing disinterest, assemble crowds in the beginning, receive silent appreciation throughout, and finally applause and donations at the end. If we had seen this interaction once we would have put it down to the quality of the song, dance or routine, but with each passing encounter it becomes clear, porteños are apt to be generous toward public performers.

We have missed one local practice and it’s the one reason we chose Argentina over Peru or other options for travel this time around. Despite the best of plans, we managed to land in Argentina, home to one of the world’s lengthiest legacies of football greatness in the one month this year when the national league is on hiatus. The English may have codified the rules of the global game, but the game reached its full expression on the Río de la Plata. While the Englishmen clumped around the ball like four-year-olds, the Argentinians and the neighboring Uruguayans developed passing and dribbling skills, alongside the formations and intricacies that would produce the winners of the first three of the first four World Cups. This is why we flew across the world to Argentina.

Our, or really my, original plan was to see a minimum of four games at different levels in different neighborhoods during our stay in Buenos Aires. The fixture list on which I had based these plans was the 2015 version of the Primera A, Argentina’s highest league, organized by the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA). But 2015, was not common. The death of the AFA’s dictatorial former director Julio H. Grondona a year earlier had thrown the country’s football structures into chaos, and only now in the summer of 2016 is it returning to its traditional August to May format. As a result, the only game to be played in July in Buenos Aires was a semi-final of the continental Copa Libertadores between local giant Boca Juniors and the Ecuadorian side Independiente Del Valle.

Boca Juniors tickets are available only to members (socios) of the club. However, there are more socios than there are seats in the famed Bombonera (Chocolate Box) stadium. Members find it difficult to get seats for normal games, let alone a continental final. My options, as a non-socio, included befriending a socio with tickets willing to sell them, finding a reasonably-priced ticket on the internet exchange, or convincing the front office of my journalistic or academic credentials. The socio I befriended graciously gave us a tour of the stadium, but had no tickets to sell, the cheapest seats on the internet exchange failed to drop below $250US, and the front office never responded to my speculative pitch to conduct “research” from the press box. I watched the game on TV.

We are not leaving Buenos Aires, however, without seeing a world class match at a famous football ground. Despite the fact that the men’s league is on hiatus, the women’s game persists. Information on matches is nearly impossible to find, even the leading clubs, like Boca Juniors and the team we saw, River Plate, do not publish fixture lists for women’s games. There is no press coverage. Game times are posted about 24 hours before each match and are often cancelled or postponed without notice.

The game we chose was River Plate-Platense on Field 1 in the shadow of El Monumental, the other of Buenos Aires’ renowned football palaces. In a month, the stadium will be filled with more than 50,000 people for a men’s game, but at Field 1, we gathered with about 100 other supporters. The stands consisted on one long concrete bench separated from field by a 20-foot chainlink fence.The field is close enough to the airport that you can read the carriers of landing planes. There’s no video screen, no scoreboard, not even a clock.

River started well, as the far superior team. Their goal difference coming into the match was +28 to Platense’s -41. Women’s football in Argentina is lopsided with four teams, including River Plate combining for 45 wins, while the other six teams have managed 20 between them. Four early goals end the competition by halftime and the game ends with the most infamous of score lines, 7-1.

There is little spectacle in this match, but it offers something that games that draw more attention and resources lack: access. Following the game both teams walk off and talk with the supporters. Number 9 on River Plate, who has scored four goals and is the best player on the day, answers Linda’s request for a photograph. There is no loudspeaker to announce her goals, but she is clearly one of the top players at one of the top clubs in her country. There is a strong likelihood that she is a national team player. Yet, here she is, unpretentiously carrying on conversations with complete strangers and friends alike just after her match. We never learn her name and there’s no report the next day to let us know who she was.

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Recoleta, 2016

DSC08130Microcentro, 2016

DSC08136Retiro, 2016

20160710_142106Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, 2016

20160710_142635Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, 2016

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Microcentro, 2016

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La Boca, 2016

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La Boca, 2016

DSC08191La Boca, 2016

DSC08194La Boca, 2016

DSC08211Palermo, 2016

DSC08229Palermo, 2016

dsc08238Microcentro, 2016

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Recoleta, 2016

dsc08246Recoleta, 2016

dsc08318Belgrano, 2016

dsc08355Belgrano, 2016

dsc08357Belgrano, 2016

dsc08360Puerto Madero, 2016

dsc08386Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, 2016

dsc08392Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, 2016

dsc08401Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, 2016

dsc08411San Telmo, 2016

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